Mariners pitcher Brian Holman came up one out short of a perfect game 20 years ago. But that's nothing compared to curves life has thrown the Holman family.
Whenever he does speaking engagements, Brian Holman often reflects on the topic of overcoming failure. As an object lesson, he begins by showing a video of the final inning of the Mariners’ game in Oakland on April 20, 1990 — 20 years ago Tuesday.
That game, one of the most famous in Mariners history — infamous might be more accurate — is Holman’s calling card, the prime reason he is remembered for a four-year major-league career filled with considerable promise, but cut short by a series of shoulder injuries.
It’s all there on the video — Holman beginning the inning by striking out Felix Jose, then getting Walt Weiss to ground out to second baseman Harold Reynolds.
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That made it 26 straight batters retired by Holman, putting him one more out from baseball immortality. The Oakland crowd of 44,911 was on its feet, roaring for the opposing pitcher. If he could just get out pinch-hitter Ken Phelps, who was batting for Mike Gallego, Holman would become the 13th pitcher in history to throw a perfect game, just the second to do so against the defending World Series champion.
Time and yearning hasn’t changed the ending. Every time, Holman watches with the rest of the audience as Phelps, a former Mariner who grew up in Seattle and starred at Ingraham High School, unloads on Holman’s first pitch and deposits it over the right-field wall at the Oakland Coliseum.
“I have to relive that horror,” said Holman last week.
But he says it cheerfully, because Holman, 45 and living near Wichita, Kan., has a well-earned sense of perspective from a post-baseball life that has been tinged with trauma and tragedy. A little thing like a frustrating end to a baseball game isn’t going to torture him into his dotage.
The video ends with Holman striking out Rickey Henderson to end the game — the best he would ever pitch, one of the best any Mariner has ever pitched. But that game, that fateful pitch to Phelps, is forever frozen in time for what could have been, and how cruelly his shining moment of glory was snatched away from Holman.
If you delve into the archives, Holman’s immediate postgame remarks were gracious, self-deprecating and indicative of someone who, even then, understood that this wasn’t life or death.
“About 4 in the morning, I stood up in my hotel room and yelled as loud as I could, “You’ve got to be kidding me!’ ” Holman said.
Holman and his wife, Jami, settled in Ellensburg after his forced retirement due to four unsuccessful shoulder surgeries. The family’s life was jolted by a series of hardships, beginning in February 1999, when their 9-year-old son, David, fell out a chairlift at Snoqualmie Pass and suffered a broken femur, broken wrist, a concussion and a lacerated kidney and liver.
While David was being treated for those injuries, a CT scan revealed a small spot on his brain, which turned out to be a tumor. Eventually, brain surgery was needed when David was 11. Jay Buhner, the man Phelps was traded for, gave him a buzz cut the night before the operation.
But this story has a happy ending. Holman calls David “a miracle kid. He’s now a strapping man with a great arm.” David Holman, in fact, is a standout 6-foot-6 pitcher for Hutchinson Junior College in Kansas, having been drafted in the 47th round last year by the Mariners.
Holman himself has recovered from open-heart surgery in the early 2000s to repair a leaking valve. But the other jolt to hit the Holmans does not have a happy ending. Daughter Kassidy, whom they adopted in 1999 at the age of 3, developed leukemia in January 2000. After a long, courageous battle, she died in July 2006, just short of her 11th birthday.
“She was the coolest kid you’ve ever seen,” Holman said. “She loved life. I don’t think you ever completely heal from a loss like that. There will always be a wound, or an empty space, inside of you. But you remember how special she was, and know you’ll see her again. She touched everyone she met. Our daughter, Jennifer, wants to be a nurse because she loved her sister so much and saw everything she went through.”
For Phelps, the Holman home run — the last one of his career, as it turned out — ranks near the top of events for which he is remembered.
“Boy, Brian was really good that night,” he says now. “It just wasn’t meant to be.”
But that home run, his 123rd in 1,854 at-bats, one of the best ratios in history, doesn’t come close to his true claim to fame. His own moment of immortality.
Say the name “Ken Phelps” these days, and chances are the response will be: “Seinfeld!”
The episode was called “The Caddy,” and it aired Jan. 25, 1996. One of the subplots involved Yankees employees believing that George Costanza, who worked as the assistant to the traveling secretary has been killed in a car accident. George Steinbrenner himself delivers the news to George’s parents, prompting his father, Frank Costanza, played by Jerry Stiller, to burst out:
“What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for? He had 30 home runs and over 100 RBIs last year. He’s got a rocket for an arm. You don’t know what you’re doing!”
Responds the Steinbrenner character, whose face is never seen but is voiced by Larry David: “Well, Buhner was a good prospect, no doubt about it. But my baseball people loved Ken Phelps’ bat. They kept saying, ‘Ken Phelps! Ken Phelps!’ “
Through the magic of reruns and YouTube, that clip is universal, and it follows Phelps wherever he goes.
“When it ran the first time, my friends on the East Coast, where it ran three hours earlier, called and said, ‘You’ve got to watch Seinfeld. You’re an icon now, you’re a cult hero.’ People never forget. It’s amazing what an impact that show had.”
Phelps, 55 and living in Paradise Valley, Ariz., was recently on an Internet radio show with Stiller and Buhner to talk about the episode, and the 1988 trade.
“My line to Bone was, ‘You had a heck of a career, but I know one thing: I was better than you when we were traded for each other. You passed me up, but I was better at the time.’ “
Phelps was 35 on that cool April day in 1990 against the Mariners, an almost forgotten man on a colorful and swaggering Oakland team that featured Rickey Henderson, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Dave Henderson, Carney Lansford and Terry Steinbach. They had swept the Giants in the ’89 World Series, and would go on to make it back to the Fall Classic that year, losing to the Reds.
A husky left-hander, Phelps’ skillset had been particularly appreciated by the popular author Bill James, who each year selected “the Ken Phelps All-Stars,” players who had dominated the minor leagues, as Phelps did, and could have succeeded in the majors if only they got a chance.
And his statistics — a career OPS of .854, had the concept of on-base percentage plus slugging percentage been conceived yet — caught the eye of Oakland’s innovative general manager Sandy Alderson, who was on the cutting edge of the rising sabermetric movement.
“The things I did are much more appreciated now than they were back then,” Phelps said. “Sandy was really into on-base percentage, even back then. He was in my corner, but Tony (La Russa, Oakland’s manager) had other ideas.”
So Phelps had been relegated to the role of McGwire’s seldom-used first-base backup, and pinch-hitter. Except in the A’s lineup, there were only two hitters that ever got hit for — Weiss and Gallego.
As Holman’s game unfolded, and A’s hitters kept getting mowed down, Phelps realized in about the sixth inning that he was likely to be called upon. He retreated to the clubhouse to loosen up and watch Holman on television.
In the eighth inning, La Russa relayed a message to Phelps: “Grab a bat, you’ll be hitting in the ninth.”
In the seventh, Rickey Henderson popped to center field, where a 20-year-old budding superstar named Ken Griffey Jr. made the catch. Stan Javier grounded out to Reynolds. Canseco struck out for the second time.
“His fastball had a lot of movement,” Canseco said after the game. “One exploded away from me, but another one he got me on I should have hit all the way to China.”
That Canseco strikeout fired up Holman.
“I challenged him with a 93 mph fastball. I ran off, pumped up, and sat down,” Holman said. “At that point, I had no clue (he was throwing a perfect game). I sat down, and everyone got away from me. No one got me a drink or towel. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ I looked up at the scoreboard and saw zeros all the way. I said, ‘Ah, something weird’s happening.’ “
Weirdly, warming up that night, Holman hadn’t felt good at all.
“Nothing was working in the pen,” he recalled. “I told myself I had to work ahead and go for ground-ball outs, but I didn’t have my good stuff. (Reliever) Keith Comstock watched me warm up and said, ‘I’m going to be in the game in the second inning. No way Brian’s going to go far in this game.’ “
But as the game proceeded, Holman experienced a magical transformation.
“My arm loosened, and I actually had good stuff,” he said. “As the game progressed, things began to click. After the second inning, I couldn’t miss a spot.”
That assessment is confirmed by Mike Brumley, the current Mariners third-base coach who was the M’s shortstop that night (tripling in a run as the Mariners built a 6-0 lead toward the eventual 6-1 victory).
“That was probably the best game I was ever involved in,” Brumley said. “Holman’s game was just unbelievable. He had command of every pitch.”
In the eighth, McGwire flied out to Henry Cotto in right. Ron Hassey was called out on strikes. Steinbach grounded out to Brumley at short.
“No pitcher ever goes out thinking they’re going to throw a perfect game,” Holman said. “Everything has to be right. I just had good stuff, pinpoint control, good defense. It came down to the wire. I would have loved to have gotten one, but by not getting it, I’m probably more well known than if I had.”
After retiring Weiss for the second out in the ninth, Holman soaked in the adulation from the once-hostile crowd.
“When I had two outs,” Holman said, “I stepped off the mound and I was literally thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m going to be in the Hall of Fame. They’re going to want my hat, shirt, jock and underwear. Put it up in a fake locker in Cooperstown.’ That passed through my mind real fast.
“The thing that really stood out, before they announced Ken Phelps, the fans — 40,000 — stood up and cheered. When the opposing fans cheer you, it’s a pretty deep feeling. Very neat. I’d never experienced that as an athlete. Usually, they’re booing and throwing batteries at you, or yelling at your mom.”
Phelps was known to work the count, rarely swinging at the first pitch. But he had decided upon a different game plan.
“Tony said to go up swinging,” he said. “There was no sense taking pitches off him. The way he had been throwing all night, I might get only one good pitch, and it might be the first.
“That was the game plan, and lo and behold, the first pitch was a pretty good fastball, up in the strike zone. I usually don’t offer at that pitch; I’m usually looking for something down. But if it was anything close, I was going to swing.”
Holman: “I threw the pitch in the wrong place. It was supposed to be down and away, but it was up in he middle of the zone, exactly where I shouldn’t have thrown it. It was the only mistake I made.”
The ball sailed over Cotto’s head and over the fence, as a stunned silence hit the Oakland Coliseum and the national audience that had tuned to the game on an ESPN cut-in from the seventh inning on.
“At least it was a home run,” Holman said. “If it had been a broken bat or a blooper, I would have lost my mind.”
“It was my job,” Phelps said. “Obviously, looking back now, it was so close to a perfect game, which would have been something special. The fans in Oakland were booing me, believe it or not. They wanted to see a perfect game. I didn’t know how to take any of it. But I said to myself, if I strike out, they’ll be showing me for the next 20 years making the last out.
“I didn’t feel that bad about it. I’d like to see a perfect game as a fan. From a player’s standpoint, I didn’t want to see one.”
Holman: “My immediate feeling was, ‘Oh, man, I can’t believe that just happened.’ “
Holman, who came to Seattle with Randy Johnson from Montreal in the Mark Langston trade, would never pitch again in the majors after 1991. He finished his career with a 37-45 record.
Phelps was traded from Oakland to Cleveland in June 1990, then retired when the Giants cut him from their Class AAA team the following May.
In 2005, the Holmans, who also have a son named Scotty, moved to Kansas, where Holman went to high school, to be nearer to their family. He is managing director for the Wichita branch office of Ronald Blue & Co., an investment firm, as well as coaching baseball at Andale High School outside Wichita.
Holman and Phelps have met over the years at golf tournaments and other events, and the game invariably comes up. The following day, they even exchanged autographed balls. Phelps wrote, “Great game, God Bless,” on his, but requested that Holman write only his name. “I think he was afraid of what else I might write,” Holman told The Los Angeles Times in 1990.
Phelps has spent the past 12 years working as a consultant for the largest power company in Arizona, as well as doing radio and television commentary over the years. Looking back on a career that will live forever, thanks to Seinfeld — and, yes, Holman — he is satisfied.
“I played a long time,” Phelps said. “You can look back and say ‘I could have done this or that differently,’ but I did as good as I could. I got to play in my hometown, Seattle, for five years, and I’m thankful for that. I got a World Series ring. No regrets.”
Nor for Holman, not even that fateful pitch to Phelps. Not when he compares it to the real loss in his life.
“You never, ever want to bury your child,” he said. “It’s the worst thing a family can go through. You can’t describe that kind of pain. You can’t describe lying in bed with David and hearing him say, ‘Daddy, will this be my last birthday?’
“A perfect game is a great thing, and wonderful, but it’s just baseball. We’ve certainly dealt with a lot harder things than baseball.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org